The poet is the priest of the invisible, the one who paints pictures of the way the air holds still or the way it moves away from the woman in the red dress, walking home from the bus stop beneath the row of old oak trees. The one who orchestrates the sacrament of placing words on empty paper, lets life move through the pen, leap across streams or fly like salmon up their ladders. The priestess who tells us stories about the heart of humankind, the whisper of doubt, the musty scent of secrets uncovered, given over to the day. It is not a small or unimportant task, this working with words, this waving of incense, these footsteps placed one after the other, ink across the page.
[Editor’s note: This is a piece from our spontaneous writing group on August 17th. The prompt was this quote by Wallace Stevens from The Daily Poet book (Two Sylvias Press): “The poet is the priest of the invisible.”]
I am not protesting in the streets because of the pandemic, but I am holding the hope in these acts close. But I’ve been troubled by the angry chanting. Not that people don’t have cause to be angry. Centuries of reasons for rage. Still, I am disturbed by the tenor of things, by what feels like a crossing over, moving away from nonviolent resistance. Wait, I want to say. This is not what Gandhi would want. Not what Martin Luther King would want. This is not what John Lewis tried for in his long, dedicated years of service. (If we keep going in this angry direction, will they all be rolling over in their graves?) I keep thinking we should be singing instead. I lie on my back in the courtyard after chavasana making up lyrics in my head to the melody of “Give Peace a Chance.” Black lives matter, I breathe. Brown lives matter. Queer lives matter. Women’s lives, too. “All we are saying,” I sing under my breath. Now and then I smell smoke from the brush fire near Banning, send up small prayers for all the beings there. The mourning doves glance my way, this strange beast beside them, but they don’t take wing.
These days I can still become unglued in an instant, leap from grateful and open, watching a roadrunner beside the creek path, to cursing people quietly behind my mask. In our humid days, our brutal heat, my sweat is salty on my lips, on the brush of the back of my hand. I move from minutia, from frustration with the online Ralph’s order, the jarring conversation about hearing aids—I move from this weighted trivia into outerspace, long moments lying on my back in chavasana, tears pooling in my ears, my body both wedded to the earth and light, as if I might float off, join the crescent moon in the daylight sky, healing in the depths of me in tiny, magic, unseen moments.
[Editor’s note: This piece came from three drawn words in our spontaneous writing session today: salty, outerspace, unglued.]
It is hard for me to name fresh, new times when I felt like I belonged because I have written about most of them already, the ones that stand out. That pile of young women on Vicki’s living room floor, laughing. Girl Scout camp, Camp River Glen, singing in the dining hall or beside the fire at night—all of me engaged, connected, joyous. For me more often is the sense of being in a group but not of it, a rigidity in my body, an inability to rest with these people who seem so at ease together. I don’t know what the common thread is, aside from myself, me as the thread. Often I just haven’t experienced what they describe—I feel different, set apart, as if they all truly come from common roots, and I am the strange flower carried far from the others, flown here by birds.
I still seem to be all over the place. I keep hoping I’ll regain my balance. Finding more time to sleep will help, I know. One morning I get up early for my walk, return home with time to sweep the courtyard, fill the feeders in the guayaba tree for my house finch. It’s the first time I haven’t been rushing to finish before my 8:30am work meeting, and when I carry out the big bag of seed, I feel joy come the way it used to. The next day I am anxious and short on the phone with a colleague, brittle and brusque the next day leading my “Sheltering in Place” writing session on Zoom. I resist how rigid I feel. “Some shelter you’re offering,” I mutter, mean to myself. I tell my story later on another weekly Zoom, my voice cracking. “I don’t want to be like this,” I say. Not very Buddhist, is it? All this resistance to what is. Today I yell at my mother. I make her cry. Later she’s angry at me when I call to apologize. “Well, you’re good at yelling,” she says. “Oh,” I say, hard voice in my brittle body. “Where do you think I learned it?” Silence. But I am still the monster who made her cry, though this time I let my own tears come, find my way out of this dark, stuck place. And later, too, I remember standing beside the creek bed yesterday in the shade beside a desert orchid tree. I remember how the hummingbird came to perch on a nearby branch of the tree, and I watched him preen. And then a raven glided overhead, low and close, and two mockingbirds spiraled past. One of them landed on the palm across the street and started to sing. I looked up just then and saw the waning crescent moon in the pale blue above the tallest branches, and it felt all of a piece, and me a part of it.
I turn south at the corner, walk home along the quiet street, my dried persimmons from the farmer’s market a small weight on my shoulder. I sip hot raspberry leaf tea from my stainless steel mug. Our snowbirds have flown early, wanting to be back in Canada before the borders close. I like this quiet world. It wakens my longing for the world I remember when I was a little girl and everything shut down on Sundays. But today’s quiet evokes this sense in me that we have no idea what our world will be like after the pandemic. Today’s quiet is a little eerie, laced by uncertainty. When I get home, I sit on the couch, drink the rest of my tea, stare at my mountains. I’m behind on my sleep from too much work and weighed down by my foray out into the world. All I want to do is sleep and eat. I make quesadillas with sharp white cheddar goat cheese, green chiles, cassava tortillas. I return to the couch, savor each warm, melted bite. Then I pull my soft cotton blanket over me, the worn salmon one with the rows of skinny flying birds, the one my yoga teacher brought back for me from Mexico two decades ago. I curl up beneath this old, familiar weight and let myself sink into sleep while mourning doves come and go from the courtyard, and their wings make twittery sounds outside the open windows.
It hits me this morning when I open the gate. My white-crowned sparrows are gone. Every last one. There’s no one perched on the wall across my little road, no one sitting in a gap in the hedge above the cinder blocks. I begin to cry even as I wish them good, safe travels in my heart. I am lonelier now than I was before I knew. (I’m glad, though, to know this loss can still reach all the way through me.) After I fill the bird feeders (but not the one I had tucked inside the bougainvillea for my sparrows), I put on my mask and walk to Ralph’s to buy more seed, spearmint tea, mushrooms and celery and garlic for soup. At the corner, a woman turns left beside me. Her mask is pulled down, her car window open. She smiles at me, big and warm. I smile back behind my mask and wave. We’re both moving in different directions, so our encounter is fleeting, but I can tell by her open face she feels me smiling back at her. Maybe she sees it in my eyes. This one long moment between us fills me up, buoys me. I know these smiles of ours must be energetic, too, boosts of love and good will shooting out of us. But I am a novice still. I fretted first that we’d lost each other’s smiles, hidden behind our masks. Now I look for nuance. A gift, maybe, of our pandemic, this growing awareness, the deep subtlety of each exchange.